If there is one thing that life is very good at doing with its myriad unexpected twists and turns, its delights and its traumas, it’s making us feel like we have absolutely no control over anything.
Time and again, our attempts to rein in the unruly beast of life comes to nothing, our best-laid plans faltering and failing in the face of odds so overwhelming we may wonder if we will ever prevail, if we even have a chance of prevailing.
It’s hard enough to deal with these situations as an adult but even more difficult as a child or teenager when life experience and emotional nous are in their formative stages and our capacity to react in any kind of meaningful way is stymied at every turn by our lack of understanding and limited perspective.
Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) knows exactly what you’re talking about, or she would if she understood precisely what was happening to her.
When we meet her, she is what her brother rather derogatively terms a “nerd queen”, a Dungeons and Dragons-addicted girl barely into her teens who is grappling with the kind of trauma most of us don’t have to face until well into our lives.
We are not made privy to the exact nature of the trauma until well into the film, a narrative reveal that feels like it arrives at just the right moment, shedding light and truth onto many of the events preceding it, but thanks to a nuanced and skillful screenplay by Joe Kelly, who wrote the graphic novel of the same name on which the film is based, we never once feel like we’re in the dark about the forces assailing Barbara.
She is clearly someone in existential pain of the highest order, escaping into a fantasy world built upon an intense appreciation of Norse folklore in which Barabar is a giant killer, a person who triumphs over forces beyond the control of everyone else, the one person in her hometown who keeps everyone else safe.
It’s never suggested for one moment that the giants Barbara faces, and about which she knows a prodigious amount – it’s the one topic of conversation she is happy to talk about, telling new friend Sophia (Sydney Wade) about them in detail, the one time the taciturn social outcast ever lights up – are real.
But then, as in A Monster Calls, no one, initially at least, fully appreciates what the giants, and her ability to take them on and win, means to Barbara; it’s only when freshly-installed school therapist Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana) takes a special interest in the disaffected young girl, who is the target of some vicious bullying by a mean girls clique led by Taylor (Rory Jackson) that the truth about the giants emerge and we slowly come to see why it is that Barbara has taken on the persona of all-conquering heroine.
Her devotion to her calling is near-absolute – from the well-equipped cave-shack on the beach filled with all kinds of tools and gadgets to the traps she lays through the woods where she tests various combinations of food to see which the giants favour to the hours she spends roaming the town in which lives looking for black omens such as flocks of black birds and weird oceanic disturbances, she has no time or patience for anything or anyone else.
Whether it’s her older Karen (Imogen Poots) who’s doing her best to keep the household of five siblings together, or new friend Sophia who can’t quite figure out her aloof, strange friend, or Mrs. Mollé, if you’re not part of the giant-subduing solution, you are very much part of the problem and not worth Barbara’s time or attention.
Because of this, Barbara has the potential to come across as thoroughly dislikable protagonist, but in the hearts of Wolfe, and the wise words of Kelly and careful direction of Anders Walter guiding her, she instead comes across as raw and vulnerable, someone who is lashing out and falling in on herself because she can find no other way to cope with life.
She is not inherently an awful person and I Kill Giants succeeds as well as it does, because so many layers are added to the character, layers which are carefully, thoughtfully and sensitively peeled away in a way that makes sense and which increasingly makes your heart go out to a young woman in a great deal of pain.
So skillfully are the reasons for Barbara’s surly disengagement with the world around her, one which doesn’t make sense to her unless it is couched in terms of giants and giant killers, revealed that by the time the great reveal takes place you have become deeply invested in her welfare.
You have also, if you have ever experienced overpowering, inexplicable trauma of any kind, the sort that defies your ability to understand, reason or successfully overcome it, readily-identified with Barbara to such an extent that watching the last half hour of I Kill Giants feels like someone has taken your heart out, stomped on and put in back in again, in the best possible way.
Is there a good way to have your heart broken? In the context of this film, most certainly, and you ache and weep and feel so deeply for Barbara in her ever-more disquieted world of monsters, traps and fires, battles and showdowns that you wonder if you’ll ever be able to breathe again.
It’s that emotionally-affecting and that viscerally, beautifully real, a film with quirky indie underpinnings and a captivatingly grim, grey stormy look that is anything but remote and distancing, bringing you ever closer with ever slow-burning, unhurried scene, to the realisation that Barbara is ever single one of us who has ever faced the worst life can throw at us and wondered if we’re strong enough to make it through.
That’s the central truth of I Kill Giants in the end – that no matter how ill-prepared we feel we are for life’s calamitous curve balls, however poorly we understand what is happening to us and however much we flail in our futile attempts to come to grips with it, that we might be stronger and more able than we think.
Getting to that point is the great challenge and it’s on this dramatically-intense but artfully and quietly-expressed ground that the film expresses itself most profoundly, an emotionally-powerful kernel of truth hiding in a whimsical world which is revealed to be far more real and far more truthful than you might first expect.